A Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables and fruit and low in saturated fats can extend life, according to a pan-European study reported by the BBC.

It has long been thought that the diet can help to improve general health, the broadcaster said. But a major pan-Europe study of 74,607 men and women aged over 60 has shown closely following the diet can actually extend life by up to one year.

The study, led by University of Athens Medical School, is published in the British Medical Journal.

The researchers collected information on areas including diet, lifestyle, medical history, smoking and physical activity.

The Mediterranean diet is defined as having a high intake of vegetables, fruits and cereals, a moderate to high intake of fish, low intake of saturated fats, high intake of unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, low intake of dairy products and meat and a modest intake of alcohol, mostly wine.

The men and women were each given a score based on adherence to a Mediterranean diet, with higher scores for those who ate the most foods linked to such a diet.

The researchers found that overall a higher dietary score was linked to a lower overall death rate.

They said that a two-point increase in the score was linked to an 8% reduction in mortality.

A three-point increase was associated with an 11% drop in mortality and a four-point increase was associated with a 14% drop.

This meant that a healthy man of 60 who stuck closely to a Mediterranean diet could expect to live around one year longer than a man of the same age who did not eat such a diet.

The researchers said the link was strongest in Greece and Spain – probably because people in these countries followed a genuinely Mediterranean diet.